Press 1 for English, Press 2 for Customers

Sept. 4, 2006
A lesson in automated phone systems for alarm companies

In America today, more and more businesses have employed some form of automated attendant to answer incoming phone calls. In a few cases this technology actually works fairly well. In most cases, however, it creates a huge deficit when it comes to customers and how they feel about dealing with your company.

How many times have you called a company who you do business with only to be greeted by a plethora of options to push just to get a live person? Oh and, by the way, you’ll need to “Press 1 for English.” What? This company is located in Milwaukee, why am I having to press 1 for English?

Another infuriating automated greeting cheerfully asks me to “Please listen to the entire message as our menu options have changed!” In several cases, the menu options go all the way to 8, and can take over 2 minutes of listening with no way to “zero out” to get to a live operator. In many cases, your callers may try to “zero out” but will be told that the option wasn’t recognized. Then, of course, the options message starts all over again.

OK, let’s turn this back on the alarm industry. Over the past few years, many alarm companies have gone to automated attendant systems. Some of those companies I have called over the past few weeks even let me stay on the phone pushing buttons and listening to options for over four minutes before I actually reached someone’s extension, only to be asked to leave a message. Yes, I am talking about alarm companies -- big alarm companies and small ones alike!

One thing all alarm companies who give great service have in common is that they have a customer-friendly attitude. Viewing customers as the most important part of your job helps create loyal relationships. Great customer service is part of conveying to them the sincere appreciation you have for the fact that they placed their trust with your company to secure their business.

I’ll step out on a limb here and say this: Truly great alarm companies who care about customer loyalty do not employ the use of automated attendants.

More and more, live people answering incoming calls have become the exception to the rule. And at the same time, more and more customers have begun to value personal contact over the phone. Those of you who still answer your phones (and provide reliable service) have created additional value in doing business with your company. That ability for your customer to connect with the company they’re paying (your company!) is a point of differentiation versus doing business with a competitor who uses an automated attendant.

If you still answer your phones with live people, you would do very well to “shop your competition”. Find out who uses automated attendants and who doesn’t. When you call a competitor who uses recorded greetings, try out their system for yourself. See how long it takes you to reach someone. Learn how much time you spend pushing buttons before getting to the person you want. Find out if there is a way to “zero out” or if you’re stuck.

If you take the time to get as much information as possible, you will garner substantial advantages in saving customers who may just want to switch to these competitors. When you do your homework and shop the competition, you can offer your customer an opportunity to call this other company to find out for themselves. You’ll have to ask your customers, is this kind of headache really worth a price savings of $2 or $5 or $10 dollars per month? If they can’t answer their phones, how long will it take them to respond to a service call? And would you even be able to get through the system to request one?

Now before you take this “shopping of the competition” the wrong way, let me add that I do not believe in bashing any competitor. This does you no good, and often comes out like sour grapes to your customers or prospective clients. But when you offer the customer an opportunity to find out for themselves -- by providing information which they can then substantiate -- you may not only save a customer, but you may be helping them avoid making a big mistake.

As in all contact with customers, communication is the key. Developing relationships with customers begins with a personal connection. Answering the phone with a smile, and cheerfully directing the call to the proper place creates a golden moment of truth in the eyes of your customer. Imagine for a moment the following scenarios. #1: An upset customer calls to complain about the service they have received from your company. He is greeted by an automated attendant and is forced to sit and stew while he first must press 1 for English. Next, he gets to steam some more while he has to listen to the options menu. Finally he presses 7, and gets to leave a message for your customer service department to call him back. #2: A customer calls to complain about the service they have received from your company and is greeting by a cheerful voice who says, “Good morning, how may I help you?” He briefly explains his concern and is asked if he can be placed on hold for a moment, he’s then transferred to another live person who is immediately ready willing and able to listen to his problem and offer help.

How do you feel when you are the customer in this position? Which one of these companies adds value to the service they provide? Customer longevity is created by many moments of truth. What you say and how you say it, as well as how well you respond and follow up clearly nurtures a relationship of trust and loyalty. When mistakes are made (and they will be), you will have a considerably better chance at keeping this customer if you have a history of solid moments of truth with him or her. Automated attendants have “virtually” eroded business relationships to the point of creating frustration, anger, and higher cancellations.

To those of you who use automated attendants, why do you use them? In a past column, I wrote about the cost of cancellations for alarm dealers. I explained that it costs approximately $30 to get back one single dollar of lost recurring revenue. How much money do you save by incorporating the use of automated attendants when it creates a significant advantage for your competitors who don’t use such systems? Yes, it’s hard to go back, but I assure you it’s a big mistake not to. If you are able to do away with your systems and get back to a live operator, your customers will be thrilled!

Truly outstanding customer service means that everything you do revolves around anticipating and exceeding your customer’s needs. In the words of former UNUM Corp. chairman James Orr, “There’s no great mystery to customer satisfaction. We have all been and will continue to be customers, and we know what makes us happy.”

Positive impressions along with personal and caring, well-informed employees are what every customer wants. When you take out nearly as many alarm systems as you put in each month, you may want to look at all available ways to stop the hemorrhage. The current national attrition rate is approximately 10 percent. I assure you that if any company were losing 10 percent of its inventory to theft, swift action would be taken to turn the tide. Yet many alarm companies are losing 10 percent of their customers and are doing nothing proactive to change it.

A big problem in any industry is the ability to say, “I was wrong”. There’s another human nature issue which prevents us from effective communication while keeping an open mind. Can you guess what that might be? I’ll give you a clue: “Everything’s going OK.” You got it, “EGO”. Executives and management teams who have invested large sums of money in any technology or certain programs have a very difficult time getting past the fact that it may have been a mistake. When it comes to automated attendants, lack of employee training, stagnant growth, customer attrition, internal communication, and a host of other significant business challenges EGO can be anyone’s and any business’ worst enemy.

I urge you to consider the positive aspects of doing away with your automated attendant. If you simply can not, try to consider ways of creating a system that will be less infuriating for your customers. Give them an option to “zero out” and instead of asking them to press 1 for English, offer them the zero to speak with a live operator. Anything we can do to create and nurture a relationship with our good customers will be extremely well received by them and create added value in doing business with any given company. This is especially true when customers call in with complaints, sales requests, or to schedule service. The perception of diligent reliability, respect for their time and for their patronage will provide you with countless rewards. This together with other aspects of the service you provide and how well you communicate with customers will make it extremely difficult for anyone to steal them or to beat you out of a new contract based on price alone.

About the author: Bob Harris is managing director for The Attrition Busters. With over 30 years in the alarm industry, he provides seminars, business consulting, and workshops to help great companies become even better. Bob can be reached at (818) 730-4690 or by email at [email protected]. Learn more about The Attrition Busters at